Harlem Community Garden

An Angel and A Perfect Memory

I met an angel on a sidewalk. It’s an indelible memory that I return to more than others. Each time I think about her, I feel the human experience in its ideal form. Let me tell you why.

Some of us lick the edges of life. Others go at it like a dog with a sore patch. We either reach deep to figure things out or don’t know we need to dig, so we live on the surface, either a little bit desperate or very unaware.

Diets, obsessions masking as success, and the perpetual loop called therapy occupy us instead. Like a freight train we keep on, loaded with whatever ails us, moving with a pounding rhythm we don’t even hear.

I’m not sure who escapes this kind of life, but I know where I find freedom. It’s in the opportunity to drink crystalline moments. They are instances when an action is the distillation of love and courage with no intention other than being.

I experienced one last summer when I was wandering through Harlem. My destination was two miles away, and I had an empty hour. It was Sunday morning and for most of the walk it was just me and the pavement. This quiet and empty walk is embedded in my consciousness because of a woman I met. I still feel her.

About ten blocks south of the Metro North station on 125th Street, I saw a woman in a wheelchair with paper in her lap. I was already in a peace zone from the gift of an expected morning walk on a clear summer day. I was also laced with wonder. Between the station and the woman, I happened on a community garden. Lush with plant life, folk art, knitted signs, and improvised spots built for rest and conversation. It looked a bit like Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden but more restrained.

I was drawn to the wheelchair first, but I was spell-bound by the woman. She had the face of an angel and an aura of contentment. It was smooth, round, and open to the sun. She had a beautiful smile and a quiet confidence.

She opened her mouth to speak and hesitated. When words surfaced, they arrived like courses from a dumb-waiter, slow, deliberate, and with lots of space in between.

She didn’t seem bothered by her cadence. She was patient and determined to communicate. Most of all, she was brave. Who would chance speaking to strangers when the space between each word was so big? I asked her if she had a stroke, and she said yes.

She was a Jehovah’s Witness selling the value of family dinner and ditching your cell phone. Family dinner is practically a religion in our house, but I pretended like the golden nugget was news to me. I hugged her when I said goodbye, and wished I’d given her more of my time instead. It would have been good for both of us.

Turns out her sister was standing at the end of the block, keeping an eye on things. I spoke to her for a minute. She was the strong big sister to a fragile woman. Her job was to watch over the angel, but it’s the angels who watch over us.